Photo: Marko Cvetkovic/Shutterstock

How to: Choose a GPS Device for Traveling

Technology + Gear
by Matt Scott Jan 13, 2011
I remember the days when I had to carry half a dozen paper maps that, once unfolded, would never fold back again, blew away in the wind, or disintegrated when wet…

For most areas, a GPS device has made navigation easier, whether you’re just finding a hostel, driving to the airport, or trekking to a hidden temple. However, choosing the right device is essential to ensure that you’re not carrying around a useless gadget.


What will you mainly use your device for: driving, hiking, finding your way around the city or just for peace of mind if you get lost?

Not all devices are the same so make sure you choose a device with your needs in mind. A car navigation system, for example, is as good as useless once you take it off the main paved road.

Dedicated devices

More and more devices are now integrating GPS technology especially smart phones. You might want to think about having one device that can do everything you need, rather than having a separate cell phone, GPS, and computer.


The vast majority of GPS devices are designed to be used in cars and while for the most part there is little difference in the basic software, make sure you chose a device that is appropriate to your personal use and mobility.

A car-mounted GPS is hard to ft on a bike and having a device that can be attached to a rucksack strap or put around your wrist is particularly good for traveling.

Runs out of the box?

Some units will work straight away, others may need you to download a program onto memory card or other storage device. If you ever need to reset your device you’ll probably have to repeat the procedure- not easy if you’re stuck halfway up a mountain.

Size and weight

The smaller (and lighter) the easier it is to travel with, although don’t give up too much on the screen size. Typically the smaller units tend to be more fragile and are not always ideal for throwing into a backpack.

Screen size

Typically if you’re choosing a hand held device it’s not essential to have a large screen, but if your device will be looked at from a distance, you want to make sure you can make out details.

Screen pixels

The more pixels the better, giving you better resolution, however remember to combine this with the size of the screen you’re choosing also.


Particularly important for units with great details and programs aimed at hikers, the more colors will make the map easier to read and understand.

Receiving capability

The higher the number of channels your device has, the better the reception you’ll get. Especially important if you’re in thick forest or elsewhere you might not get a clear signal.
A 12-channel parallel receiver system is one of the best for hiking.

Graphics processor speed

This is the speed at which the unit will refresh the image, important if you’re moving fast (in a car for example) but not the most important aspect if you’ll only be using your unit at walking speed.


Always useful but this usually adds a lot to overall cost. Think about whether you’ll really need it before you hand over those extra dollars.

Battery type

Most units work with a fixed battery and must be directly charged. If you’re heading to an area where a reliable electricity supply is not available, you might want to consider a unit that can accept regular batteries.

Map provider

Make sure you choose a provider than covers the areas you’re traveling to, and ideally do some research to get the best maps you can. Some providers have better maps than others, especially when it comes to out-of-the-way backcountry places.

Map updates

You’ll want to make sure you can keep your unit updated with any changes- whether it’s a new road, an area changing its name, or simply the map that your service provides.

While practically every device offers updates, some are simpler than others (automatic as opposed to having to buy an actual CD, for example) and there is often a huge difference in price. No point having an update that’s almost the price of a new device!.


Some units are designed to work with only one country, while multiarea mapping is usually more expensive. If you’re going to be travelling it’s well worth the extra dollars.


While very few units have this function (and for the most part, it is far from essential), if you’re heading outdoors, it can be interesting to know your altitude.

Trip recording capabilities

Having a device that not only shows you where to go, but can show you where you’ve been can be very useful. It not only gives you the ability to retrace your steps, but you can record your entire trip, from a bike ride across France to hiking in the Himalayas.

Once you’ve downloaded your route, you can share your travel with the entire world (or just a few close friends).


Typically, you get what you pay for, but not always, and you probably won’t need all the functions a device includes. Make sure you know what you’re getting (using the criteria above) for your money and bear in mind that even the most basic units will fulfill most everyday needs.

Community Connection

For more on global positioning systems, check out 5 Handheld GPS Receivers and How to Get Started Geocaching.

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